DIVORCE AND PARENTHOOD: Guilt Trips and Guilt Traps
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4. Role swapping. When someone is angry or hurt, he usually needs to talk about it. Even those who are introverted need someone to whom they can vent, someone to encourage them when things have been difficult. A major mistake divorced parents can make is choosing their child to be their counselor. Seeking comfort, sympathy and affirmation, we may find ourselves essentially swapping roles with our kids, going to them with our problems instead of encouraging them to come to us with theirs. Besides meeting a basic emotional need to vent, by eliciting sympathy and affirmation from our children, we erroneously believe that "they understand" and hence that our guilty feelings are unwarranted.
Another form of role swapping is being afraid to discipline your children. It's motivated by a need to relieve our guilt and make our kids happy. However, there may be a sense of self-punishment going on as well. Feeling the temptation to let your children "run the house" can be a way of inflicting punishment on yourself for causing them pain from the divorce. The kids are given the freedom of an adult and the parent is, in essence, being punished by the children's misbehavior. When you find yourself eliciting sympathy from your kids and/or allowing them to "run the house", a red flag should be racing up your parenting flagpole.
5. Sticking it out for the sake of the kids. Should a couple avoid divorce at all costs for the sake of their children? This is no doubt one of the most controversial issues concerning kids and divorce. It stems from an old-fashioned, child-centered view of marriage whereby the children take precedence over the marriage relationship. Even today there are differing views from psychologists and family therapists as to whether it is healthier for the kids if Mom and Dad stay married for their sake (despite personal misery) or if they divorce.
There is no cut and dry answer to this question; however, based on all available evidence, it seems the right decision depends on each individual situation. Every effort should be made to save your marriage. There is an abundance of excellent marriage seminar material out there to explore, and couples with troubles can often find hope in the midst of hopelessness; "dead" relationships can and have been "resurrected" to be better than ever. If you dash your pride against the stones and seek restoration of your marriage, there is a good chance you will find it. Even the worst of situations can be healed with forgiveness, understanding, and some good counseling.
But what if you have explored every reasonable avenue and it's still just not working out? No matter how you try to hide this from your children, they will know. I've known many couples who try to just live as "friends", putting up with each other for the sake of their children. I've also known many who were the children of such marriages who have said to me, "I wish they would've just divorced. They would've been happier and so would I."
Remember: kids learn about love and relationships from their parents - if you are willing to settle for a dead marriage, chances are they will to. The point? If you have given every effort to save your marriage and it's simply not working, don't let guilt keep you from divorce. Sometimes divorce is the lesser of two evils. Sometimes it's actually healthier for your children if you divorce than if you stay together in a "Household from Hell".
To be sure, there are many more traps you can fall into because of guilt. However, if you can avoid these five, you and your children will be happier in the long run. Guilt is natural - and even justified - when children suffer because of divorce; however, like almost anything else, it can be used to help or hurt. When guilt controls you, you may well fall into its traps. When you harness your guilt however, you can use it to better your parenting skills.